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Saturday: We get great packages, Thanksgiving Take Two

I woke up Saturday morning and started working on some Greek while Jen slept in a bit. We were planning on taking a trip to Manchester that day, to listen to a friend of ours from back home perform in a concert, and so I knew I needed to get as much done as I could before we left.

Not long after I had been up, I heard a knock on the door. It was Beng. Letting me know we had another package by the door. And that it was too heavy for her. Beng’s great. And she’s usually the bearer of good news. That we’ve received another package from home.

This one was from our Aunt Katrina. She had told us it was coming. And we had really been looking forward to it. I picked up the package and took it upstairs. Beside our bed. Where Jen was just waking up. It was like Christmas morning. Opening up gifts in bed.

It was such a great package to open up, too. So many things from back home we’d been missing. Jen’s favorite cereals (Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch and Lucky Charms), her Baker’s Breakfast Cookies and favorite flavored Crystal Light (Kiwi Strawberry). Beef jerky and slippers for me. I’m a big fan of slippers, and getting a new pair of slippers made my week.

Gloves and playing cards rounded out the package. And a very nice card, telling us how proud she was of us. Thanks so much for the package, Katrina. It meant so very much!

Change of Plans

I mentioned before that we were supposed to be going to Manchester to hear a friend of ours from back home perform. Katie Van Kooten. She has an incredible voice. If you’ve never heard her, you will have to at some point. Katie performed in London for something like six years after school, with the Opera House. And she was a huge help to us in preparing to make the move over here to England. We were really excited to go listen to her.

Naively, we didn’t think it’d be a big deal to hop on a bus or the train and go listen to her. Turns out it was a much bigger deal than we thought. Because the show wouldn’t get done until later in the evening, we found out we’d have to take the last bus out of Manchester, which would get us back into Oxford at 5:00 in the morning… That sounded less than ideal.

We felt horrible canceling on Katie at the last minute, but I simply wasn’t going to be able to be out that late and lose a day Sunday catching up on rest, not with my final week of the term ahead of me. So I had to write her an e-mail, apologizing for the last minute cancellation. We were both bummed, as Katie’s simply an amazing performer. We’re hoping we’ll have another chance to see her while we’re over here. Katie, if you’re reading this, how about booking another UK show?

Thanksgiving, Take Two

Our friends Rob and Vanessa were throwing a Thanksgiving party that night. Jen had been helping Vanessa prepare by baking some pumpkin pies and pumpkin bars the day before. Since it looked like we wouldn’t be traveling north to Manchester, we thought we’d join in on some more Thanksgiving festivities.

It was held in a church building not far from Christ Church. In the city center. Not the church itself, but an extra building. For events like this. For people to reserve. And it was great. There were probably between 20 and 30 people there. Husbands and wives. And a handful of kids. Lots of people from the business school, but a handful of others.

The food was great. Long tables overflowing with turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and yams and green beans and salads and bread. And another table for desserts (or “puddings”) and appetizers and drinks. It was great.

One of the pastors stopped in and introduced himself. You could tell he was interested in what was going on. He was from Ghana, originally. And his name was Abu. He had been a student here at Oxford. First in Theology. Then in Law. Before becoming a pastor. Super nice guy. He told us he had been involved in reaching out to those in the middle east with the Christian faith. And that he was working on setting up an Alpha Group for muslims here in Oxford. That blew me away. It sounded like someone hosting a steak dinner in the middle of the lion exhibit at the zoo.

But that’s where his heart was at. “The middle east needs Christ,” he told us, with a voice of sincere confidence.

Abu had never been to a Thanksgiving dinner before, so we told him he had to grab a plate and join us. He half-hesitated and then did so. I was standing in the end of the food line when he came back with a plate, and a piece of smoked salmon on it. He pointed over to the table that held the desserts and appetizers and drinks and asked if those were the puddings. I told him they were. Then he pointed down to his plate and asked if the smoked salmon was pudding. I laughed and told him that was an exception to the pudding table. That it was smoked salmon. He laughed. He said he just didn’t know.

We had a great time talking with Abu. He asked where we were from. I told him about an hour’s drive north of Seattle. He told us he had a friend here at Oxford who was from Seattle. And that he was one of the smartest guys he had ever known. He told us how this guy completed two Masters degrees while also finishing his Doctorate degree. I told him I’d never again complain about my workload.

After dinner, people sat and around and talked over mulled wine and pumpkin pie. Vanessa put Home Alone on the projector screen. Jen and I found two seats front and center and laughed as Kevin lit Joe Pesci’s head on fire, and dropped an iron on the curly-haired guy’s head. That movie just feels like Christmas, doesn’t it?

We thanked Rob and Vanessa for a great time afterward, and we went home and put some Christmas music on while I opened up my Greek book and got to work.

Sunday: A Sunday Dinner with Ken & Lynne

We went to church Sunday morning, and we found two seats next to Ken and Lynne (the hand surgeon turned Theologian and his wife, both from Oregon). They had e-mailed me the week before, asking if we’d like to come over for Sunday dinner after church this week. So that Lynne could meet Jen. Ken had met Jen briefly at Harris Manchester at one week but, surprisingly, her and Lynne had yet to meet each other. Ken and Lynne are great, and I was excited to join them at their warm home again.

After the service, a good number of the congregation gathered in the back room, to share tea and catch up. We each took a cup of tea and talked with Ken and Lynne for a bit. Then Lynne stepped away to say “hello” to someone she knew. A little bit later, Ken stepped away to find her.

There was a table set up in the church foyer, selling Christmas cards. Home-made ones. I asked Jen what she thought people would think if I flipped it over and began shouting, “You’ve turned my house into a den of thieves.” She just rolled her eyes.

Jarred and Chelsea made their way across the church foyer to say “Hi.” Along with their two kids. Jarred’s doing his Doctorate here in Theology. They just came here from St. Andrew’s in Scotland, but they’re both originally from the states. Both really nice. Jarred’s in one of my lectures with me. Jen and Chelsea talked for a bit, before exchanging e-mails and making plans to get together for tea.

We stepped out into the cold late-morning air after church. It was easily the coldest it has been since we’ve arrived. We climbed into Ken and Lynne’s car and waited for the warm air to come pouring out of the vents. Ken wore driving gloves. And explained to us all the crazy driving rules the English have, as we made our way to their home.

We pulled into their drive way, with a Christmas wreath hanging from their front door. Inviting us in. Their home was warm, and the leather chairs seated around their fireplace looked as though they had been waiting for us to arrive, to join them. Which we did. Gladly. Ken turned on the fire and Lynne asked us if we wanted anything warm to drink. Jen and I loved the idea of a hot cup of tea. Ken passed. And we sat around the cozy living room, with Christmas decor and warm fireplace, sipping our tea and talking as Lynne piped in from the kitchen while she finished preparations for lunch.

Ken told us about their plans to travel home for the holidays. And the interesting conversations they’ve seemed to have with those they sit by the past few times they’ve flown.

He told us about a recent trip, and how they had missed a flight, as their incoming flight had been late arriving. He told us that they were pretty frustrated, having to wait longer for the next flight out, but how they tried to tell themselves that there was a reason for it. He told us how they were seated toward the back of the plane on their new flight, and how there were a number of seats toward the front of the plane still open. Just before take off, they asked the stewardess if they could move up to those free seats. And she let them. He told us how, just before the doors closed, a middle-eastern man boarded the flight, and took the seat next to them. In the seats they had just moved to.

He told us how Lynne had struck up a conversation with this man, as she was reading a book about religions around the world. Apparently he told her if she had any questions on the Islam faith, to feel free to ask him. They got talking after this, about their different faiths. Islam and Christianity. And then Lynne subtly handing the conversation over to Ken.

“As a woman, I knew he’d listen to what Ken had to say before he’d listen to me,” Lynne said, poking her head in from the kitchen. They told us how this man was surprised to hear them talk about Christianity, and how it appeared quite different from what he knew of the faith.

“There weren’t any other conversations going on at this point,” Ken told us. “It was so quiet, you could hear a bit drop. Everyone around us was listening in,” he said with a laugh.

Apparently Ken and Lynne invited this man to join them for a meal at their home, while he was in Oregon. Leaving him with their phone number.

“We never got a phone call,” Ken told us.

After about 20 minutes, Lynne invited us into the dining room. Where she had prepared lunch for us. Roast chicken. Rice. Bread. Green beans. Salad. It looked wonderful. And it smelled even better. We made our plates and Ken prayed before we began. The four of us seated around their table.

They told us about all the work they had put into the home since arriving. They told us about their home back in Oregon. In the country. And the small church they attend. And how the pastor and his family were staying there while Ken and Lynne were here in Oxford.

It felt like we were back home. Sharing a meal with old friends. And it was wonderful.

About halfway through the meal, Ken looked over at Jen and asked her what the most difficult part of all of this had been for her. It was a fair question. Jen smiled softly as she prepared her thoughts.

“Probably just the change in schedule,” she said. “I was always so busy back home, and now I have all this time on my hands.”

Lynne told Jen she completely understood where she was coming from. And she went on to suggest a number of different places Jen might want to look into to get involved. In the youth program at church. In the Newcomer’s Meeting at the University. And that she’d be happy to meet Jen there, if she wanted.

Lynne’s a mom, to be sure. Not just because she has four children of her own, but because she just has that natural motherly instinct to her. She’s an incredibly kind, caring woman.

After finishing my second plate of lunch, we left the table and rejoined our seats in the living room, beside the fire.

Lynne asked if we’d like some of the chocolate cake she had baked for dessert. We weren’t about to pass that up.

“I like mine served warm, with vanilla ice cream. Does that sound all right with you?” she asked us. I wanted to give her another hug at this point.

“Yeah, that sounds great. Thank you, Lynne,” I said, in place of the hug.

We enjoyed our warm chocolate cake and conversation in the living room. Sharing stories from back home. Laughing about all the differences we’ve come across being here in England. Ken laughs with his shoulders. They rise and fall as he chuckles.

It was so nice sitting there, in their warm living room with Christmas decorations and good friends. It hardly felt like we were even in England.

Monday: Last New Testament Paper, An Introduction to the Christian Union

Monday was my last New Testament tutorial of the term. I’ll miss that. Going to class in the castle.

And it’s really been a great class (if I can say “class,” when there’s only two of us, and a professor). Not only because I enjoy the material, but I’ve really enjoyed my tutor (or professor, Dave) and classmate (Sarah, the one who always comes in these funky outfits) and the discussions we’ve had. I thanked Dave as we left the class that afternoon. And I shook his hand.

I don’t think Dave’s probably much of a handshaker, but I am. I once shook the Principal of Bellingham High School’s elbow after meeting him for the first time. Because he didn’t have any hands free. I don’t think he was terribly impressed. I wish I were making this up, but I have witnesses.

The wind was blowing hard as we left class Monday afternoon. And it was cold. Riding away on my bike, I asked Sarah what she plans to do for the extra week she was going to spend in Oxford before returning home.

“Oh, I’ll probably just see where the wind takes me,” she said. I laughed. Seemed like something she’d say.

Christian Union

I had told Tim I’d join him for a meeting with the Christian Union that night. The Christian Union is the University-wide Christian group here at Oxford. And each college has a smaller group that meets, as part of the wider Christian Union umbrella. Tim had been wanting to start up a chapter at Harris Manchester, since we don’t currently have one, and I said I’d help him. I liked the idea of getting a group going at Harris Manchester. I believe people meeting to talk about Jesus is a good thing.

This evening’s meeting was full of Oxford students crammed into a small church room, gathered around tables. I was late arriving, because of my class, but I quickly picked out Tim in the crowd and found a seat next to him.

Two leaders stood in the front of the room. One girl. One guy. They both looked quite trendy. And a bit older than the rest of the students in the room. I didn’t catch their names. So I made them up. “Sarah.” She went to Cambridge, apparently. To study literature. And “Rowan.” I didn’t catch where he studied, but he wore designer glasses. He looked smart. And he talked smart, too.

The point of the evening’s meeting was to brainstorm ideas to get more people involved in the Christian Union next term. In particular, the group was discussing ways to reach out to friends who don’t consider themselves believers in God and Jesus. I’m not sure if it’s just because I was going on a lack of sleep, but I felt like I had a bit of a critical attitude toward the whole thing. Like it was a bit too creative strategy and not much about how “God” fit into the whole thing.

We prayed afterward. People prayed over those in the room, and students at Oxford in general. For creativity in coming up with ideas, and that they would go off smoothly. I had to fight the urge to allow my critical feelings pour over into my prayer. Or make any cutting remarks.

I’m usually quick to jump in and pray in group prayer. I’m not one to sit back and listen. But I did this time. Mostly to make sure I wasn’t jumping in with any rash prayers. But I just had it on my heart to pray that God would be at work here in Oxford. Through this ministry. Through other ways we weren’t aware of. That we would be diligent to love others, and even put together events that might help us share Him with others, but that, more so, we would be confident in His work in the hearts of those students here at Oxford. And that we would give Him the glory for any changed lives. That it would be more about what He was doing here, than what any of us were doing here. Than any creative ideas we came up with.

So I did. I prayed for all of that. I’m not sure how cutting it came across. I hope not very. But I felt better after saying it.

Tuesday: Waking up to Snow

We woke up to snow Tuesday morning, which was quite exciting. Peeking out of our second-story window to take in the snow-covered scene.

Jen had said the night before the snow was supposed to be coming. She was right.

Jen’s really missed her calling. She should’ve been a weather reporter. I’ve never met someone so in-tune with the weather. Someone who always seems to know what the weather’s going to do. I always tell her that’s her spiritual gift. She just rolls her eyes.

I rode off to the gym on my bike, hoping not to fall flat on my face in the snow and ice. I passed Jane and Felix on their way to school. And I tried extra hard not to fall.

An Interview with A Lewis Expert

I returned home from the gym that morning to find an e-mail waiting for me from my cousin in Indiana. Tracy. He’s a producer for a Christian radio station, and he was writing to tell me about an interview he had scheduled for the next day. It was with an expert on C.S. Lewis from Oxford, a guy by the name of Michael Ward. Tracy told me that Michael has written several books on Lewis, that he was a warden at the Kilns for several years, and that he even appeared in the Lewis biography Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins. And apparently it had made Tracy think of me, so he wanted to tell me about it.

I had to laugh after reading the e-mail. I replied, to tell him we know Michael. Jen and I have had several meals with him since arriving here, with a small group from the Oxford Lewis Society. And we’d be seeing him that evening at the Lewis Society’s Christmas party at the Kilns.

I told Tracy I’d tell Michael to prepare for the interview of his life. Tracy asked me if I could get him an interview with the Queen.

End of Term Interviews

We had our end-of-term interviews at Harris Manchester this week. To find out how we are doing. And to make sure to address any issues before the next term rolls around.

I met with the Senior Tutor, Lesley Smith (basically the director of academics) and the Vice Principal Tuesday evening. I really didn’t know what to expect, other than a brief meeting, as I knew they were meeting with about 150 students over only three days.

We met in the Principal’s office. Which always sounds bad, but it ended up being a great meeting. Lesley smiled at me as she read my tutor’s reports. She said everyone was very happy with my work. She said they reported that I was “keenly engaged in the classroom,” and that I had the “mental tools” for the coursework. She told me she thought I was doing very well. I told her I was happy to hear that.

It’s a rather odd feeling, dreaming of studying at a place like this for so long, and then suddenly finding yourself propped up in the middle of a room, with the administrators telling you they’re happy with your work. It’s rather like finding yourself in the middle of a dream, where you can’t quite remember the details surrounding how you got there in the first place.

Lesley asked me how I was feeling about the studies, at this point. I told her it had been a pretty difficult transition, coming from working and not having had to study for several years. But that I was really enjoying it now. She smiled and nodded.

The Vice Principal, who I hadn’t met before, asked what I did before coming to Oxford. I told him I worked in Public Relations for four years. He told me they’d keep that in mind in case they needed any PR help. I told him to do that. And to let me know if they wanted to work out a trade. They laughed. Which I think might mean they took that as a joke.

I smiled as I found my way down the staircase and toward the library to wrap up my last essay of the term. Encouraged by their response to my efforts, encouraged to know that, at the end of my first term, Oxford was happy with my work.

A Christmas Party at Lewis’ Home

I met up with Jen for thai food after submitting my final essay of the term. Before heading to the Kilns for a Christmas party. It was a place we had been wanting to try but hadn’t had a chance yet. Across the street from Christ Church. Walking in, it looked very much like a pub. Which made me wonder whether their thai food would actually taste like thai food, or if it’d be served with a side of chips.

But the food was great. I told Jen about my meeting over dinner. She was so happy for me. She looked beautiful. And I told her that. It was so nice to stop from the frantic pace long enough to enjoy a nice meal away from home. And a real conversation.

We caught the bus to Lewis’ old home after dinner, and we were there 15 minutes later. Stepping off the bus into the snow-crusted grass. Making our way down the lane that leads up to the Kilns. Looking at the Christmas lights on the homes and through the windows as we went. It all felt very much like Christmas.

Walter arrived shortly after we did. It was great to see him again. He sat with Jennifer and I, beside the row of books and the fireplace. And we caught up on all we’ve seen and done since he had us over last.

I told Walter we bought ourselves a couple packs of digestive biscuits after he had introduced us to them over tea, and that we were going through those quickly. He appreciated hearing that, I think. He’s a big fan of digestive biscuits. And tea. We told him about going to Blenheim Palace. And Bath. He smiled, and asked questions about each place as we spoke.

Walter’s an amazing guy to talk to. He’s the kind of guy who will be telling a story and, inconsequentially, will mention the time he visited Tolkein in the hospital, and finding him reading a detective novel… It’s still very unreal for me to sit with a man who was friends with such incredible people. And who has all these memories of them, still.

Walter asked what I would be reading over the break. I told him it’d likely be a lot of studying Greek, actually. He asked what I liked to cook. Walter likes to talk about cooking. And his running joke is that Jen only cooks mashed potatoes. Unseasoned mashed potatoes. I’m still a little unclear about how that all came about. But he loves that joke.

The night included a tour around the house. We split up into three groups of about 10 people each. Michael Ward led one group. Cole led another. And Deb (who’s the current warden at the Kilns) led the third tour. Along with Walter, to share old stories. We were in Deb and Walter’s group. It was great, because we got to hear firsthand a lot of these great stories. About Lewis. And others.

Walter told us about the cat that lived at the Kilns. Tom. And how he got so old that his teeth fell out. At one point the maid asked for Lewis’ permission to have Tom put down. Lewis responded, “Of course not. He’s a pensioner.” Laughter filled the room. Walter told us that, from then on, Lewis requested that Tom be fed fresh fish. Three times a day. De-boned, in light of Tom’s lack of teeth.

Walter told us about a time he and Lewis were leaving the house to go for a walk. And they passed Tom as they went. Lewis tipped his hat to Tom as they walked, Walter told us, before whispering to Walter, “He’s a pensioner.”

We toured around the rest of the house and coming to the dining room (“decorated to match Joy’s tastes”), Deb told us a story about Joy. Joy was Lewis’ wife. And, from what I hear, she was a fiery woman. Deb told us about a time Lewis and Joy were on a walk, in the eight acres behind their home. Around the pond. When they came across an archer, who was on their property. Hunting. Without permission. And how Lewis kindly asked him to leave, to which re responded by pointing his arrow directly at them. She told us Lewis quickly stepped in front of Joy at this point, like any gentleman would, and how Joy responded by saying, “Damnit Jack, you’re in my line of fire!” Everyone in the group laughed. I turned to Jen and told her that reminded me of her. She smiled. And nodded. Except she’d say, “You’re in my line of fire, bonehead!”

We finished the tour with Deb’s favorite story. A story Walter tells about the time he first arrived at the Kilns. About the time he first met Lewis, after sharing letters for nine years.

Apparently Walter arrived at the Kilns around tea time, as he said Lewis and he talked over about three pot’s worth of tea. After which he grew increasingly uncomfortable, and found himself in need of a restroom. After waiting as long as he could, he asked Lewis to excuse him, and if he could show him where the “bathroom” was.

“Of course,” Lewis replied.

Walter told us Lewis took him down the hallway from the common room, pulled out a stack of towels and soap from a closet, handed them to Walter and then opened up a door leading into the bathroom.

Walter looked around the room to find just that, a bathtub. And a sink. But no toilet.

After several minutes of wondering what to do, he made his way back out to the common room to explain the misunderstanding to Lewis. Or “Jack,” as Walter refers to him as.

Apparently Lewis responded by saying, “All right, well perhaps we should start over. Where would you like to be taken, then? That’ll cure you of those senseless American euphemisms!”

Everyone laughed. Deb handed Walter a stack of towels and soap, so she could take a photo.

Walter told us Lewis knew where he wanted to go, and he had done that on purpose. He told us Lewis was quite particular about words. He and Tolkein were both that way, he told us.

After several hours, Jennifer and I decided to make our way to the bus stop, and back home. We thanked Deb for the party. We told Michael “goodbye,” and said “goodbye” and “thanks” to Cole, and then I found Walter, to tell him “goodbye.”

He was surrounded by a group of students, in front of the fireplace. He was telling a story, and everyone was listening attentively. I hated to interrupt, but we needed to be going if we were going to catch our bus.

I apologized for the interruption as I stepped up to Walter, to let him know we were leaving. He stopped his story without a look of frustration and told me it was so nice to see us again, and that he’d write me later in the week to invite us over for supper at his home before Christmas. I told him we’d like that very much, and we made our way out of the Kilns. Away from the warm home into the cold night air. Through the snow, down the lane, lined with homes lit up by Christmas lights, and toward the bus that would bring us home. It had been a wonderful day.

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